Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Surviving the Annapurna Circuit

Note: This is the start of the Annapurna travelogue, which is in 4 parts.

I’m a mountain person. Wasn’t raised that way, don’t always want to be one (like when I am not amongst them), the more rugged the better, I even like the pain that goes with the beauty. In early 2004 I had just spent 3 months on small islands in Indonesia and Malaysia, and many more cumulative months over the last two years living on the best in Thailand, but Nepal was the first place that really felt like home. Don’t get me wrong, I love beaches - I was raised on seafood and Pawley’s Island – but there is only so much I can do on them… collect shells, dive with sea turtles, explore reefs, walk the beaches, swim for exercise, soak up beer and sun, explore the interior jungles, and so on. I was beached out (what a luxury, to be able to do something you love until you are sick of it, then move on to something else you love!) and Nepal was the cure. It had actually been years since I had set foot midst peaks – the Sierras of California and somewhere in the distant past (China will do that to you – everything before seems remote) all those years in Idaho (and Utah, and Wyoming, and Montana…) and my heart soared. You can’t actually see the mountains from Kathmandu – the valley is just too polluted – but everywhere there was the promise; I was staying in the primitive Durbar Square area but the popular Thamel district was thick beyond belief with all the trappings of a modern alpinist environment. Guide services, trekking companies, outdoor gear rental and retail stores, expedition stuff, and gorgeous posters are everywhere. And the city itself was so exotic that I almost didn’t want to leave – my neighborhood of muddy alleys and funky smells had been continuously inhabited for over a thousand years and it felt every minute of it. Neighborhoods that looked like they had never seen a foreigner, whispers of “hashish!” (its the best in the world, and you get a free colorful cultural experience in a back alley with your purchase), street urchins just begging to be paid attention to, throngs surrounding sacred architectural edifices, rickshaws and the press of sweaty flesh – it was everything I wanted it to be and more. But you only get 2 months in the country and it was time to feel the trail underneath my feet – I advertised for partners on the local bulletin boards, found a likely Yank and Aussie with similar interests, we hired a local guide Raj (just in case), bought and rented what we might need for at least 3 weeks away from civilization, boarded the bus with its load of goats and produce, and were on our way to Besisahar – trekking has increased in popularity and convenience since the heyday of the 60’s, but it is still essentially unchanged; Nepal’s Himalayas can only be accessed on foot, and everything about the experience is still pretty rough. We were there in the off season and the tourists were pretty thin – just the way I like to travel.

Even with the long rickety bus ride (with goats on board!), you still end up at a frontier end-of-the-road town that is in the distant lowlands, just a dusty place to lace your boots one more time and hope you haven’t forgotten anything important. Just start walking. Even though you start amidst tropical heat, rice fields and bananas (elevation 700 m) you learn quickly what Nepal trekking is all about – the track is a few foot wide dirt highway that is the only access to the outside world, and it is plied by the entire population (and their donkeys, and goats, and everything else) as they move goods and services throughout the region. In flip flops. It constitutes the main drag of every single village along the way, lending a view into the intimate lives of the residents, as they worked, played, ate, and slept. This part of Nepal (the Annapurna region) is not quite Third World – we were surprised to see fragile electrical transmission lines stretching along most of our route (regularly spoiling our photographs – which are not allowed to include them as we try to capture the “real” Nepal) – it just happens to be a place where there are absolutely no roads and not even any sign of the wheel (motorcycles, bicycles, and even carts and wheel barrows were nowhere to be seen, only the very occasional handhewn water wheel, driving a prayer wheel or a grist mill). The joy of being so easily immersed in such an exotic culture – dark eyes, pierced noses, reverently religious Buddhist people, living like our distant ancestors did – was almost too much for me and I had a hard time keeping up with my mates; at each village I wanted to stop and spent the rest of my life, playing with the children and quietly contemplating my navel. But Rich (the Aussie firefighter – fit, built like a brick shit house, and a real social animal) - gobbled up the trail and it was a challenge not to be lost in his dust. This trek nominally takes 21 days and you have to keep moving to meet this target (and we intended to, for various reasons), though we would try to stay in the more unconventional villages along the way to make our journey seem more authentic. But years of being away from the trail took their toll – lazy beach life did not leave me as fit as I would have liked – and the pace occasionally seemed brutal. Luckily (?) we all soon had amoebic dysentery despite being careful with the water, so at least one of us had to pause for a toilet break every 50 meters. So we couldn’t travel but so far a day.

Each little village has 2-3 little inns where you can stay, with tiny threadbare rooms (mattress/bed and candle) for <$2/night. Its firm tradition that the room is cheap, even free, and you are mostly obligated to spend your food dollars where you sleep – dinner never had meat and was usually some choices of noodle or potato dishes or the local dal baht (literally “lentils and rice”, but you never actually got the lentils, just their juice – you are supposed to eat this bland thing with your hands, and Raj and all the locals ate only this dish); other
local food was somewhat rare, but you could sometimes find thukpa or tintuk occasionally. Meat was obviously around on the hoof (chickens in cages, goats roaming across huge landscapes, and the occasional cow like thing) but never available. Places would seem to advertise yak meat, but it was only offered for one month of the year. A VERY good day included potato pancakes with yak butter and yak cheese; but where was all the flesh, bones, skins, etc. of the animals we saw? As we got higher and higher, we eventually found big bands of cashmere goats roaming across the open plain countryside (and giving birth! – the mother would drop the kid and fall behind the moving herd, then catch up a few hours later when the baby was up to speed.), and at the very top – for only a day or so – wild blue sheep and yaks wandering on the steep hillsides; at one tiny hamlet I heard there were day old yak twins so I tracked them down and helped the shepards bring in the herd for the night, yelling and howling across the rugged landscape, below 25,000 foot peaks. By now it was just cold and deserted (in the rain shadow of the big peaks), too high for people to make a living at except for the occasional tea house or inn, and inside those we clustered together at night (Singaporeans, Bulgarians, Ukrainians, Israeli, British, etc. all now just citizens of the world) at the tables with charcoal fires placed below them, talking about how hard Thorung La (the big pass, at 5400 m - 17,769 feet) would be and who might not be able to make it. We had already lost Matt (much later I found him in Berkeley) at the tiny airstrip at Humdee, suffering so much from dysentery, altitude sickness, and knee pain that he decided to fly back out, and we were worried about some of the loose group of travelers that we had become used to sleeping and eating with over the week – one would need a horse and one would take several tries to get over, but everyone actually made it. It was solid snow and ice for the half day to the top, and surprisingly there was a tea shop at the very top, where you could get some small reward for the effort.

Next: painful all the way down, beautiful new country, a glimpse of Mustang...

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

More Photos from Early Annapurna

Note: This is the second episode of the Annapurna travelogue, which is in 4 parts.

My friends in Nepal made it all worthwhile - you are SO far out that anything that seems familiar is sacred. I can't imagine doing that first trip alone (I later wandered in the Everest region for weeks alone, but that's another story...). Losing Matt too early due to altitude sickness, failing knees, and the trots was very unfortunate - we missed him but he was later found happy on the beaches of koh Samui (Thailand), healed.

Photos: My compadres (Matt on the left, Rich on the right) on a random trail through a village, then Raj in there as well, where the trail was carved out of the shear rock wall (in the old days there may have been wooden planks hanging from ropes where they hadn't carved it out yet).

Of course I put only a tiny fraction of photos in my travelogues, and I try to pick the very best. Here are some of the less dramatic photos and bits and pieces of explanations: the a kitchen in the middle of nowhere (ah, I loved those sooty spaces and was always in them when they allowed), and another perfect child with a hole through her nose. I wanted photos of the people who lived there showing that time had not changed them that much - I saw little evidence that it had.

I don't always cover the spiritual parts enough (to keep the length of the travelogues managable, so that they can be emailed), but Nepal was the place to see serious faith in action! How can anyone consider their religion "right" when here exists such a content and devout people? We prowled into Upper Pisang (Raj and I at the closed gompa), and explored the roofs of the monastary at Braga (Rich and Raj).

I was fascinated by the beasts of Nepal - the dreadlocked dogs, the beautiful horns and coats of the cashmere sheep, the yaks and the dzos (half cow half yak, for lower altitude work), mules and donkeys, the very occasional cat (always tiger striped), the blue sheep, occasional partridges, etc., but the conflagarations at the Swiss steel suspension bridges always awed me most - I called it an "Annapurna traffic jam" when so many sheep and goats needed to cross a precarious wire bridge at the same time (often with machine gun armed soldiers at either end, to keep out the Maoists) that a mass panic resulted. More than once I pulled a stuck sheep hoof out of a bridge grate to keep the herd moving.
Rounding out the photos... the Gangapurna glacier across from the town of Manang, a dzo with traditional colorful wool earrings (I don't advise that you rey to get quite that close), and my favorite bunch of weatherbeaten ratlets. When not ill, eating, or sleeping, I could usually be found chasing kids and animals.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Still Suffering Around Annapurna

Note: This is the third episode of the Annapurna travelogue, which is in 4 parts.

The view from the top was great! But the trail down the other side was long and horrendous, until your legs just collapsed at the bottom after losing tremendous amounts of altitude (1600 meters – nearly a mile straight down – after having climbed 1000 meters on snow to the top that morning), in the religious pilgrimage town of Muktinath. There is a Buddhist shrine here where the sacred water/fire/stone come together in one place, with 108 waterspouts and more prayer flags, prayer whels, and fantastic images than you can believe; we bought and lit butter candles, and felt appropriately in awe. We came across some ladies selling bits and pieces from Tibet (or so they indicated) – things old, odd, and natural are revered so I now have a bit of animal horn and a chunk of what I hope is turquoise to remember them by. I took part of a day off and chased baby goats, we hit the road and blam, gone were the high snow covered peaks, mostly out of sight for the rest of the trip. We passed some little towns that were the real thing – major stops like Muktinath have the mark of tourism (often subtle – just a few little stores and guesthouses) while these were weathered collections of wattle and daub and stone that were in the process of crumbling; despite the rush to keep making progress (the manifest destiny of the Annapurna circuit– finish in 3 weeks) I drank a pot of mint tea in every one I could.

Across more dramatic rain shadow plains that reminded me of Idaho, we finally came to Kagbeni, a beautiful town (I should have stayed there!) that was a green oasis of wheat/millet and fruit trees right before the river of stones took off for Upper Mustang – the legendary place that most tourists are forbidden to enter for fear of changing the people (but enough $$ will get you there); I just looked and longed, glad someplace is set a little bit aside for the people and the future. Kagbeni was a delightfully cramped place with narrow streets, interesting food, friendly people, and animals everywhere (always important). There is a famous statue here which I am sure gets its share of photo ops – the embarrassing member was removed for safe keeping the day I was there.The road out towards Jompson and Tatopani was hard and long, on a stony river bed in the rain. I’m afraid that rain does little to enhance the experience for me, especially when your gut is tearing itself up. My memories of this section are the least, as I kept my head down and an eye out for toilet spots. The huge riverbed is almost a highway, with animals being driven down the middle, nomadic teahouses made out of river flotsam, and even an occasional tractor (Something motorized! They were flown in and just ply the stretch to Jompson.).

We stumbled into Jompson, home of the only other airport on the circuit and a significant tourism hub – all our Israelis (and other nationalities) friends were holed up here, eating better food and playing cards. I found a pharmacy-like thing and bought more medicine for the bronchitis that had been with me for months, and quickly left this scrap of civilization without regret. Rich flew out here suffering from schedule (he went on to see Chitwan too) and foot problems, so it was just taciturn Raj (now with something strange growing bigger by the day under the skin on one leg – anxious for home) and me, mile after mile. At some point it really does start to seem like you are leaving, your experience is coming to an end, and your time is up. As with most of the trip you are traveling deep in a gorge with monsters like Dhaulagiri (at 8167 m, the seventh tallest mountain in the world – the full moon made it spectacular),and Annapurna on either side; technically the Kali Gandaki River gorge is the deepest in the world (6000 m or 20,000 ft!) but you don’t feel the whole depth looming over you. Just as impressive is having well shaped Nilgiri (~7000 m) tower over your back as you pull into Tatopani. The name means “hot water” and indeed it had hot springs and it was a chance to get clean for a change. A leg of chicken was the first meat in weeks, there was even chocolate cake, and it was a good excuse for an extra day of rest – we had failed to find the carrot brandy in Marpha, and still couldn’t seem to slow down as much as I wanted – something resembling Manifest Destiny forced us toward the trail’s end.
At some point in every trip you are no longer headed “out”, you are on your way “back”) now took us straight up through a distant area where few foreigners were seen – it was the end of the season so none were still on the trail. Instead we saw villagers turning boulders into gravel with hammers (surely the most menial job I have seen), houses under construction with the crudest tools, beautiful stones stairs, and rhododendron forests dripping with moss. We had every town to ourselves at night and I always took the opportunity to pretend that I was the first Westerner to arrive there – in Nepal you know that this is never the case, but it might as well be, since no one is going to start up a conversation with you (little English is spoken, or needed, here); I must have explorer genes, causing me to search for new places and tell stories. The way was mostly uneventful except for the thousands of painful stone steps both up and down, and some of my most local experiences of the trek – chased down the narrow street by a water buffalo family, downloading all my medicines to old people wracked by coughs and trampled by livestock, and privy to a very private and spooky late night animistic ceremony (I never understood a word or a gesture, just cowered in the dark while the shamans performed – don’t even think about taking a photo).

Poon Hill, at the top, is the destination of many visitors because it offers an unparralled view of a huge number of mountains. The town is perched on a ridge and is way too modern (able to accommodate many tourists during the busy season) and we the promised mountain view after a near ritualistic ascent to see them right at dawn (I paid off the Maoists at a discount, as a Canadian – the government has been kicked out of this area) – the mountains are many but the distance great, while I like mine right on top of me.
Photo: The view from Poon Hill (3210 meters - nearly 2 miles high!) at sunrise, with Dhaulagiri (8167 m) dominating the skyline.

The kids and the animals were exceptional, having none of the bad habits that I had been warned of (soliciting change/candy/pens) and they were happy to pause for photos – what must I seem like to them, a solitary traveler from some unknown nation? How had people like me changed their lives – brought cash to their economy, provided a little electricity, a continuous reminder that there was more out there than other tiny villages tucked into the hills? I would have given my left leg to stay a few days (meanwhile, the thing growing inside Raj’s leg was bigger than a duck egg by now so there was no stopping), but what would I have done? Mostly because of the language barrier Nepal seems to be a place that you only pass through and sample briefly – any attempt to extract more from it by lingering (read a book by the side of the trail?) might spoil the experience by emphasizing how much of an outsider you really are. Trekking is a perfect way to see the country – you are constantly moving, tired, hungry, amazed, distracted, etc. as you get to look right into their homes, but there is little chance you’ll interfere or be lonely.

Going downhill was a relief after so many days of climbing, but the end of the road meant a return to the spectacles of civilization – the last town (Phedi) turned out to be a booming construction town, teeming with workers dynamiting the rock and resolute upon paving the entire Circuit in the next 100 years; progress is a frightening thing, but at least it will take time. It was a crazy mix of images and experiences – I was in the lowlands again, lush and fertile and well populated. The waterfalls and river are beautiful and meant another chance to wash up before facing the world. But the world was garish and unworthy, filled wit ice cream vendors, trash, needy people, and urban squalor. We banded together to hire a car to take us to Pokhara (second largest town) where I immediately got a shave (with a straight razor in an outdoor shop, of course), rented a bike, ate all kinds of food, weathered out another Maoist bandha (regional strike, shutting everything down – particularly transportation), and finally caught a bus back to Kathmandu; how come I couldn’t bring myself to photograph the burned out bus carcass in the middle of the road, or the insane mountain road conditions? Probably because the bus was too crowded, or I was avoiding looking too much like a tourist.

I celebrated Kathmandu again, reacquainting myself with all the street children again by taking them out for meals and teaching them guerrilla marketing techniques so they could sell cheap trinkets (made in China) to tourists more effectively. The streets of Thamel are dense with things to do and I tried to do them all (food, email, etc.), but for some reason I felt that I had not spent enough time high in
the mountains – I had briefly peaked out incredibly high at Thorung La, but had only been in the land of yaks for a day or so (they can only thrive above 10,000 ft). And another bandh was upon me – there was rioting in the streets, it was dangerous to go certain places, sacred cows mingles with burned out vehicles in the empty streets – it was time to leave town. I was almost too late – the economy shuts down ahead of time it turns out, as bus drivers, etc. go home to their villages while they can; I missed by chance to trek in the Langtang region (no buses!) and just barely caught a scary flight into the Everest region (the one after me and killed all aboard), after spending 3 days in the primitive airport; I have now learned patience.

Photo: Even the youngest child knows the Sanskrit "namaste", literally "I bow before you" but actually more like "the spirit in me meets the same spirit in you". A beautiful greeting!

Monday, April 09, 2007

Late Annapurna Photos

Note: This is the fourth segment of the Annapurna travelogue.

Closing out the Annapurna saga are just a few more great photos which were not quite good enough to put in the main travelogue, but are worth seeing.
The reason I like to take photos of kids? You don't have to ask permission, you just point and shoot (assuming that they don't run away first!). Adults require some grooming before you can get a great close up (Why bother? Because it makes a better picture, more interesting and attractive.).
The village photos people photograph tend to be more glamorous places - with interesting people, animals, etc. when in fact you can pass through many of the smaller villages without being noticed and without seeing anything "worth taking a photo of".

I loved the tiny places the most - that explorer gene in me. What do they think of me, what do they know of the outside world? My experience is that that they are just as happy without our things - Coca Cola, TV, telephones, electricity, fast food, magazines, plastic toys, etc. - what do they really contribute to our quality of life? If you never knew of these things, would you miss them? I doubt it. Unfortunately tourists bring with them expectations - the lure of the outside world - and that eventually seduces the population. Bad tourists. But change is inevitable - the outside world exists, it propagates its values, rural places change slowly in response.